Through conservation keyhole: Old Library collection care

Guest blog post by Tracy Cook, Museum Studies MSc student on the Artefacts and Material Culture class placement in Special Collections.

As a Museum Studies MSc student on the Artefacts and Material Culture class, when I got the opportunity to choose which work placement would be my top choice, it was an easy decision to pick the placement with the University of Glasgow Library Archives & Special Collections entitled Collection Care: University of Glasgow’s Old Library. The description stated that one of the main tasks would be to assist in the moving and cleaning of books from the 15th-19th centuries and assessing each item for boxing or other conservation/preservation treatment. The chosen student would also gain an understanding of preservation and conservation in a heritage workplace, a practical understanding of collection care with an emphasis in books, experience handling books from the 15th-19th centuries, experience making judgemental and pragmatic decisions when assessing material for onward preservation, and project management skills. I was extremely excited to be given this work placement. My excitement began shifting to apprehension when the reality began to sink it at the realization that I would be working with a collection of over 10,000 books and the first books I would be cleaning were dated to the 16th century. videotogif_2020.01.30_14.43.41

First day of my work placement with the Old Library collection! 

Cleaning books that are over 400 years old can seem quite daunting at first, but I learned that the best way to manage a task that seems overwhelming is to break it down. My supervisor was extremely helpful and gave me detailed instructions and corrections to ensure I was cleaning the books correctly and efficiently. 888At this point your book should be as clean as possible when tackling a large project, but if the book needs to be opened to a certain page for an exhibition, use the  soft brush and smoke sponge to clean the pages as well.kkkHopefully these steps will help any other student who is beginning a preservation and conservation project on an old library collection. 

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I had to create an attainable goal and originally I thought cleaning 150 books would be a solid goal for my work placement. I was planning to spend at least 14 days out of the 20 on book cleaning and thoroughly cleaning 11 books a day seemed like a worthy goal. After surpassing my goal after less than half of the days, I increased my goal to 500 books. After 10 days focused on cleaning, I managed to clean 439 books with my supervisor, it seemed like my goal would be obtainable. Unfortunately COVID-19 spread and the UK increased restrictions into self isolation meaning that my in person work placement had to come to an end. Thankfully I have helpful supervisors who have given me projects to work on from home so that I am able to complete my work placement.10Another conservation skill I was able to learn was how to repair tears and missing pieces of books. It is important to fix tears and missing pieces because if they are not fixed, they will continue to rip and grow, creating a larger problem. 5It is best to fix them as soon as possible to ensure that the book can stay in the best condition possible. I will also break down these steps for you because there are quite a few things that need to be was also able to work on a pop-up exhibit, assist with Old Library cataloguing, and repack charter parchments. I created a Flickr with photos and some short descriptions of my projects if you would like to check it out. 7

 Overall I thoroughly loved my work placement!

I gained quite a lot of experience and I’ve started feeling more confident in my own abilities. Honestly, this was one of my favourite parts of my program so far. Getting the opportunity to gain hands on experience was amazing as well as gained some contacts within the heritage sector.


Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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